Medieval Warm Period vs Modern Global Warming

by | Jun 28, 2024 | Climate Change, Global Warming

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Climate change has been a significant focus of scientific inquiry for decades, with historical and recent periods of warming providing vital insights. The Medieval Warm Period (MWP), which lasted around 950 to 1250 AD, is sometimes likened to the Modern Global Warming (MGW) era, which began in the late nineteenth century and accelerated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This article briefly explains, compares, and emphasises the contrasts between the two periods.

medieval warm period

Source: IPCC Report 2021

The Medieval Warm Period

The Medieval Warm Period was a period of hot weather in the North Atlantic region, affecting Europe, Greenland, and North America. During this time, average global temperatures were 0.2 to 0.4 degrees Celsius higher than in previous centuries. This warmth enabled the spread of agriculture in countries such as Scandinavia and the Norse colonisation of Greenland. However, it is essential to emphasise that the MWP was not a globally synchronous event. At the same time, some regions warmed, while others, like sections of the tropical Pacific, had little to no temperature change.

The Modern Global Warming

Modern Global Warming is the continual rise in global average temperatures caused mainly by human activity, particularly greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Since the late nineteenth century, the Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by about 1.2 degrees Celsius, with a notable acceleration in recent decades. This warming is nearly global, impacting the poles, tropics, and temperate zones equally. Rising sea levels, melting polar ice, more frequent extreme weather events, and ecological and biodiversity alterations are among the impacts.

Comparing Medieval Warm Period to Modern Global Warming

Aspect Medieval Warm Period Modern Global Warming
Period Approximately 950-1250 AD Late 19th century to present
Temperature Increase Estimated 0.2 to 0.5°C above the baseline Approximately 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels
Primary Cause Natural climate variability Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
CO2 Concentration Approximately 280 parts per million (ppm) Over 420 ppm as of 2023
Sea Level Change Minor fluctuations, not well-documented Rise of about 20 cm since the late 19th century
Geographic Impact Mainly Northern Hemisphere, particularly Europe Global, affecting all continents and oceans
Duration Roughly 300 years Ongoing, over 150 years and continuing

1. Causes of Warming

The fundamental distinction between the MWP and MGW is their causes. The MWP is thought to have been caused by natural climatic variations, such as changes in solar radiation and volcanic activity. In contrast, MGW is mostly driven by human activities, particularly fossil fuel use and deforestation, which considerably increase greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

2. Temperature Changes

Global temperature estimates during the Medieval Warm Period imply a 0.2 to 0.4-degree Celsius increase over previous centuries. This warming was limited to specific regions, with Europe and the North Atlantic suffering the most significant alterations.

Since the late nineteenth century, global temperatures have risen by around 1.2 degrees Celsius, with the last few decades seeing the most significant increase. This warming is international, with almost every location seeing greater temperatures.

3. Rate of Warming

During the MWP, the temperature increased gradually over several centuries. In comparison, temperatures in MGW have risen significantly faster. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that the rate of warming since the mid-20th century has been unprecedented for millennia.

4. Impacts on Sea Level

During the MWP, sea levels were generally steady, with slight changes. In contrast, MGW has caused a significant rise in sea levels due to polar ice melting and saltwater thermal expansion. Global sea levels have enhanced by around 20 centimetres since 1900, with forecasts indicating an additional rise of 0.3 to 1.0 metres by 2100, depending on future greenhouse gas emissions.

Final Words

In conclusion, while both the Medieval Warm Period and Modern Global Warming were marked by periods of rising temperatures, their origins, rates of warming, geographic extents, and consequences differed significantly. The MWP was mainly caused by natural climate changes and had localised impacts, whereas MGW is caused by human activity and has far-reaching global consequences. Understanding these distinctions is critical for establishing effective mitigation and adaptation measures to the difficulties faced by current climate change. The findings highlight the importance of tackling anthropogenic influences to avoid additional negative consequences on our planet’s climate systems.

Also Read: The Anthropocene And Biodiversity Loss



  • Dr. Emily Greenfield

    Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.

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